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Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts.

Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts. By DAVID GORDON WHITE. CHICAGO: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2003. Pp. xix + 372, 28 illus. $45.

Perhaps the easiest way to begin a review of this remarkable book is to identify the meaning of the title, "Kiss of the Yogini." The first reference comes at the beginning of chapter 2 (p. 28) and is a citation from the Caryagiti, a seventh-century C.E. Buddhist tantric text.
 Pressing the triangle [of the yoni], give, O Yogini, an embrace; in
 the rubbing of Lotus [vulva] and Vajra [penis], bring on the evening:
 O Yogini, without you I cannot live for a moment; having kissed your
 mouth [vulva], I drink the juice of the Lotus.

Another reference comes in chapter 3 (p. 73) from the Hevajra Tantra, another Buddhist tantric text.
 Listen, O Goddess, to the service of worship. In a garden, in an
 uninhabited country, or within the inner chamber of one's own
 dwelling, one possessed of yogic knowledge should always worship the
 naked "Great Seal" consort. Kissing and embracing her, and touching
 her vulva, he should effect the drinking of fertilizing drops of the
 "male nose" and of the honey down below (adharamadhu).

Yet another reference (p. 57) derives from the Kathasaritsagara.
 A sorceress named Siddhikari impersonates a tree goddess in order to
 draw into her clutches a merchant's unwitting servant. Seeing him
 coming from afar, she climbs into a tree and, rustling its branches,
 calls out: "You have always been dear to me. Climb up here; here is
 wealth; take your pleasure with me." When the servant climbs up to
 her, she embraces him, kisses his mouth, and with her teeth bites off
 his tongue. He falls out of the tree spitting blood.

Or, again, there is the reference (p. 80) from the Kaulavalinirnaya.
 Without a doubt, female discharge is consciousness (samvit) in
 manifest form. [The goddess] Paramesani is "Prakrti," and the drop
 [of male seed, bindu] is called "Purusa." Without a doubt, "yoga" is
 the conjunction of Siva and Sakti. ...
 Know [the product of] sexual intercourse [to be] the water-offering,
 and the shedding of semen [the concluding rite of] releasing [the
 image of a deity into holy water]. Having purified [the body] with
 the clan fluid (kuladravyam), one becomes comprised of Siva and

In other words, the "kiss of the Yogini" refers principally to the oral kissing of the female genitalia, that is to say, ritual cunnilingus, of the goddess (Sakti) or the lineage of the various goddess-clans (kula, kaula). The kissing includes as well the imbibing of the female sexual discharge and on occasion the menstrual fluids. Presumably the "kiss" is likewise the reciprocal kissing of the male organ, that is to say, ritual fellatio, and the imbibing of the male ejaculate. Such sexualized ritual practice enables male practitioners to attain special "powers" (siddhis) or to become "powerful ones" (siddhas, mahasiddhas, or viras), and reciprocally the petulant, angry, and terribly dangerous Yoginis become pacified and manipulatable.

At first, the reader (at least this reader) is somewhat taken aback by the bold assertions regarding "Tantric Sex" in White's work. Early along, however, White makes it quite clear that the "sexualization of ritual," to be taken for the most part quite literally, is precisely what he intends to examine. More than that, he asserts at the outset that this "sexualization of ritual" found in the tantra is the true "mainstream" of South Asian religiosity, at least from the seventh century C.E. onward in South Asia, up to the beginning of the modern era. The conventional characterization of "mainstream" spirituality in this period in terms of "bhakti religiosity and neo-Vedantic philosophy" is in need of "revisioning." These latter sorts of religiosity, that is, bhakti and neo-Vedanta philosophizing, are elitist reformist constructions representative of a "relatively small cadre of Hindu religious specialists, literati, and their mainly urban clientele," and not at all representative of the "truly 'perennial' Indian religion" of the tantra.

But perhaps it is best to let White speak for himself (p. 7) regarding the thrust of his study.
 It is beyond the scope of this work to present an exhaustive history
 and anthropology of South Asian Tantra. Rather, its focus will be on
 that element of Tantra that, as I will argue, has given it its
 specificity over and against other South Asian religious traditions.
 That distinctive element is a form of sexualized ritual practice that
 first makes its appearance in circa seventh-century Hindu and
 Buddhist medieval sources, and has continued to the present time in a
 significant number of "popular" South Asian traditions. My analysis
 of this body of practice will be based to a certain extent on a
 literal reading of a small grouping of Sanskrit terms--kula
 ("family," "clan"), dravyam ("fluid"), mukham ("mouth"), vira
 ("Virile Hero"), siddha ("Perfected Being"), and khecara ("flight")--
 complemented by iconographic and ethnographic evidence from the
 medieval as well as the modern periods.

A bit further in the same opening chapter (p. 11) he spells out in greater detail the texture of the "sexualized ritual practice" that he proposes to examine in each chapter of the book. Again, it is worth quoting at some length to make clear what is meant by the "kiss of the Yogini."
 Only through initiation by and continued interaction with the Yoginis
 could these male practitioners access this fluid essence and
 boundless energy of the godhead. It was therefore necessary that male
 practitioners be "inseminated," or more properly speaking
 "insanguinated," with the sexual or menstrual discharge of the
 Yoginis--rendering the "mouth" of the Yogini their sole conduit to
 membership in the clan and all its perquisites. Here, the "mouth" of
 the Yogini was her vulva, and "drinking female discharge" (rajapana),
 the prime means to fulfilling these male needs. Therefore, the
 erotico-mystical practice, the "Tantric sex" practiced by the Kaula]
 practitioners, mainly involved drinking the "power substances" that
 were sexual fluids, either through "mutual oral congress" or through
 a form of genital sex called vajroli mudra ("urethral suction"), by
 which the male partner was able, following ejaculation, to draw up
 into himself the sexual discharge of his female partner.

Following the introductory chapter, subsequent chapters examine Yogini traditions in terms of their origins in "bird, animal and Tree goddesses and Demonesses" (ch. 2); the blood and/or "fluid" (dravya) of the Yogini (ch. 3); the "mouth" of the Yogini (ch. 4); the "power" of the Yogini (ch. 5); "heroes" and "perfected ones" (viras and siddhas) (ch. 6); the "flight" of the Yoginis (ch. 7); the sublimation of "sexualized ritual practices" into the aesthetic and "gnoseological" "High Tantra" of later thinkers such as Abhinavagupta (ch. 8); and a concluding discussion (ch. 9) of the manner in which tantra has been domesticated and, as it were, "neutered" in many contemporary contexts.

The book is rich with citations and new translations from a variety of tantras, and is replete in every chapter with detailed ethnographic material and iconographic illustrations. It is exemplary in exhibiting how serious research in the history of religions becomes enlivened by stepping outside of texts to explore visual, artistic, architectural, medical, and political dimensions. In this regard, the discussion in chapter 5 of the use of tantra in royal households is especially fascinating by way of showing the manner in which ritual and polity interacted in India in the medieval and pre-modern periods. Likewise the discussions of Yogini temples in terms of architecture and iconography exhibit the indispensable value of art history in the study of the history of religions. All of this is to say that it is no exaggeration to suggest that White's Kiss of the Yogini is one of the best, if not the best, book on tantra currently available in the secondary literature. The book's comprehensive bibliography and elaborate system of notation makes it essential reading for anyone interested in exploring the most recent developments in tantra research.

My own intellectual interests fall outside the boundaries of tantra, and as a friendly outsider who has read reasonably widely in recent studies in tantra, I am inclined to offer two critical observations for those who are currently working in tantra studies. Both observations are pertinent to the present volume but are relevant as well for some of the other current work in tantra. One observation has to do with the metaphor of "mainstream." The second has to do with the notion of "literal." Regarding the metaphor of "mainstream," I am inclined to think that it is misleading in the South Asian context, historically as well as in terms of the contemporary social reality. Regarding the notion of "literal," I am inclined to think that it fails to do justice to the deeper meaning of the tantra. Let me comment briefly on each of these observations.

First, the metaphor of "mainstream." The Anthropological Survey of India in its "People of India" survey has identified the staggering number of 4599 distinct communities in India, some 325 languages in twelve language families with some twenty-four distinct scripts. India has no majority language. Hindi is spoken by only forty percent of the population; English somewhere between three percent and five percent. As all of us who work in South Asian religious traditions surely now recognize, the notion of "Hindu" is highly problematic, hardly more than an artifact of census, and mind-boggling in its diversity whether viewed historically or in terms of contemporary social reality. Consider, furthermore, the regional cuisines in India, the regional folklores, the regional musical traditions, the styles of architecture, the vernacular literatures, patterns of marriage, the many learned traditions, regional jati configurations, and so forth. My point here is not that scholars would do well to "revision" the debate about the "mainstream" in India, whether it be "colonial," "reformist," "bhakti," "subaltern," "tantric," or whatever. It is rather that the metaphor detracts from a proper appreciation of the rich diversity of South Asian spirituality. White is undoubtedly correct when he dismisses "bhakti and neo-Vedanta philosophizing" as in any meaningful sense the "mainstream" of South Asian religious traditions, but he trips into his own trap when he then proceeds to suggest that the "truly "perennial" Indian religion" of the tantra is the properly "re-visioned" "mainstream." Surely a more plausible metaphor would be something like an "important stream," rather than an essentialist "mainstream." "Bhakti" is an "important stream." I would suggest, as is "tantra." and "Vedic ritual." and "mendicant spirituality." and "tribal spirituality." and "Patahjala Yoga," and "Hatha Yoga," and a host of other important religious "streams." Peter Hardy commented some years back that "Islam in South Asia has been united only by a few common rituals and by the aspirations of its scholars" (see his "Islam and Muslims in South Asia." in The Crescent in the East," ed. Israeli [London, 1982], 39-40). The same is even more the case in regard to characterizing Hindu traditions.

Second, the notion of the "literal." It is clearly the case that "sexualized ritual practice" is fundamental to the tantra. whether "soft core" (right-handed) or "hard core (left-handed), to use Whites idiom. It may also well be the case that ritual cunnilingus and ritual fellatio are fundamental for attaining the "power" of the Yoginis and the pacification and/or domestication of these powerful female spirits in open-air temples and cremation grounds. I would suggest, however, not simply in regard to White's work but with respect to much of the work in recent tantra research, the need for a greater dose of what I would call Anglo-Saxon common sense, or, if you prefer, at least some appreciation of elementary Freudian psychoanalysis. By the expression Anglo-Saxon common sense, I do not mean that sexuality is not important, even fundamental, in understanding tantra, but it seems obvious to me that much of this discourse must be taken cum grano salis. By my reference to elementary Freudian psychoanalysis, I do not mean the empirical scientific validity of Freudianism that has been rightly criticized in recent years. I mean simply that fundamental moment in his early theorizing when it dawned on Freud that not all of his nineteenth-century neurotic hysterical patients had literally been abused in childhood. What he had to accomplish was to devise a method for analyzing the fantasies of his patients, whether or not they had been literally abused. More than that, he had to devise a method for understanding and eventually intervening in the patterns of "transference" that generated neurotic symptoms and made it impossible for his patients to achieve lieben und arbeiten. That is, he had to devise a therapy that would enable his patients to function satisfactorily in adult genital sexual activities (whether in heterosexual or same-sex relationships) and the ability to function in the work-a-day world of everyday life. Regardless of how one assesses the success or lack of success of Freudian theory and therapy, it cannot be seriously doubted that his understanding of the literal-cum-symbolic importance of human sexuality has been profoundly influential in the human sciences.

It seems odd to me, therefore, that so few attempts have been made to interpret the symbolic significance of sexuality in the tantra, over and above the obvious literal discourse. There are, of course, the two well-known efforts along these lines, the first, Eliade's discussion of "intentional language," sometimes (probably incorrectly) called "twilight speech"; the second, Agehananda Bharati's discussion of "efferent" and "afferent" "meanings" in tantric discourse. Interestingly, both attempts are little more than allegorical or what I would call "token-token" interpretations of tantra. That is, either the apparently abstract philosophical terms of tantra "hide" a secret meaning in a one-to-one allegorical-type correlation that only an initiate can properly understand, or the various terms of tantra are explicitly offensive so as to keep outsiders away from a particular tantric group.

One has to begin, of course, with what the texts literally say, just as psychoanalysis begins with free association. Eventually, however, there is surely a level of symbolic meaning that transcends the literal. To use a psychoanalytic idiom, surely a moment comes when an interpretive analysis of the "transference" becomes possible. My hunch is that tantra research will be greatly strengthened when these larger interpretive frameworks help us to gain greater understanding of the literal discourse. David Snellgrove's concluding comments about the Buddhist tantras (in The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study [London, 1959], 46) are still very much to the point for current research in tantra.
 The literal interpretations ... are merely incidental to the main
 intention. ... They wrote their commentaries neither for those who
 wished to eat repulsive sacraments, nor for those who desired to
 study critically such strange practices, but for those who wished to
 consume the notion of their own selfhood. This is so apparent in the
 manner of their writing, so completely taken for granted, that it is
 oneself who becomes the fool, when one sets about a literal
 interpretation of the text. For them the text, like the image, is but
 an expression of the essentially inexpressible. It is itself the
 convention, the samaya.


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Author:Larson, Gerald James
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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